ORLANDO — University of Florida senior center Patric Young described the NCAA tournament as a “grind.’’
“You have to be aware that every team in the tournament is fighting for their life,’’ Young said. “The goal is just to survive.’’
With that backdrop, the No. 1-seeded Gators (33-2) could face one of their foremost challenges against the No. 9 Pittsburgh Panthers (26-9) in today’s third-round game at the Amway Center.
The Panthers, who dismantled No. 8 Colorado 77-48 in Thursday’s second round, have long been known as a physical, take-no-prisoners program. The Gators relish that sort of challenge and hope to offer their own brand of intimidation with full-court pressure.
“We want to try to wear teams out,’’ Young said. “If they’re doing a good job of holding the ball, taking care of the ball, we’re just going to try and set our own tempo.
“We’ve got to be ready to go, making sure we have a lot of energy and passion.’’
Albany coach Will Brown, whose No. 16-seeded team was eliminated 67-55 by Florida on Thursday, said he expects Gators-Panthers to be the most physical game in the NCAA tournament. And that puts a premium on Young, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound presence in the paint.
“You see the size on Patric Young?’’ Brown said. “If he couldn’t make it in the NBA, he’s going to have a shot in the NFL. If he doesn’t go to the NFL, he’ll be in the WWE. If he doesn’t go to the WWE, maybe UFC. I mean, that guy is enormous.’’
But Pittsburgh is accustomed to such players.
The Panthers were considered one of the most rugged teams in the old Big East. Now in the ACC, Pittsburgh has maintained its blue-collar image.
“Toughness is something we kind of embrace,’’ Panthers coach Jamie Dixon said. “I thought teams would talk about it before the game to let the officials know that we were tough and physical. Fifteen years later, I think we embrace it and it’s part of our culture, part of our city, so it’s a good thing. Now I think we’re proud of it.’’
Pittsburgh has held opponents to 63 points or fewer in six of Dixon’s 11 seasons as head coach. Florida’s challenge is to speed up the Panthers and play the game in the 70s. Dictating the tempo is difficult against Pittsburgh, which is expert with playing at its speed and sharing the ball.
“We’re just going to have to do a good job of deflecting balls and disrupting their flow, style of play, same type of deal we’ve always been trying to do,’’ Young said. “Just to be disruptive and junkyard dogs out there on the defensive side.’’
For the most part, when the Gators impose their will, it leads to a comfortable victory.
That’s more difficult to accomplish against the likes of Pitt. The No. 9 seed could be deceiving because the Panthers suffered three defeats on buzzer-beaters and also lost a key player, 6-6 sophomore Durand Johnson, to a season-ending knee injury at midseason.
“I don’t think seeding really matters right now because there are a lot of upsets going on every day,’’ Gators senior forward Will Yeguete said. “Every year it is open for every team, so I don’t think the seeding matters.’’
Some Gator fans might have been alarmed when watching Pittsburgh’s dominating performance against Colorado, wondering if they were headed into a trap. The reality: No. 1-seeded teams are generally always challenged by the 8-9 winner.
But in the past 10 NCAA tournaments, 35 of the 40 No. 1-seeded teams have emerged from the first weekend into the Sweet 16. The only losses were suffered by 2013 Gonzaga (to No. 9 Wichita State), 2011 Pittsburgh (to No. 8 Butler), 2010 Kansas (to No. 9 Northern Iowa), 2004 Kentucky (to No. 9 UAB) and 2004 Stanford (to No. 8 Alabama).
“I think teams get labeled a seed,’’ Dixon said. “You can move up and down. Teams are playing better. Other teams are not playing as well.
“You’re seeded based on what you did often times in November and December. Teams can change, as we all know. We know there’s some seeds that are pretty obvious, Florida being one because of how their whole season went. But you’ve still got to play the games.’’
And sometimes, as Young said, they are a grind.
“As long as we win,’’ Young said. “It doesn’t matter how.’’